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Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

    In any significantly big project, there are bound to be times when you lose the track of what you’re doing, when for whatever reason you stop moving forward and, what’s worse, can’t seem to find the motivation to get going again. When we “fall off the wagon” like that, a kind of psychological wall starts building up, making getting back in the swing of things seem more and more daunting. An ugly cycle develops: as the wall gets higher, we get more anxious about climbing it, which makes the wall higher still.

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    The only real solution is to do something, anything, but that’s small consolation when a project is taunting you with its unfinishedness. So here are a few little tricks to help you take a running start at that wall – you may not clear it in a single bound, but if you can just sink your toes into its cracks you might well find that climbing it wasn’t quite the chore you thought it was. And when you discover that, the wall itself often comes crumbling down before you.

    1. Take it on the road.

    A powerful approach to getting re-started is to switch up the scenery by tackling your project in a new place. If you’re sitting in your cubicle at work staring at the foam-and-fuzz walls, try taking a work-from-home day. If the butt-print in your chair has this project’s name on it, try going to a coffee shop or co-working space or even a park bench.

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    The point is, change your scenery. The mind builds powerful associations between places and certain activities – and unfortunately, being frustrated and unproductive is just as much an “activity” to the mind as being happily productive. The longer you stew in frustration at the same place, the more likely your mind is to fall into an unproductive state just by entering that space. Moving to a new site gives you a clean slate to work with, a place with no associations, and is often enough to break whatever mental block your mind is throwing in your way.

    2. Do 20 minutes.

    This is my favorite procrastination-killer: set a timer for 20 minutes and promise yourself to work until the dinger goes “ding”. This is useful for projects that aren’t beyond you creatively or conceptually but are simply too dull to look forward too, like data entry. (Or, I confess, grading exams…) But no matter how hateful the task, just about anyone can manage 20 minutes of it. And the beauty of this is, once the timer goes off, you often find that you’ve got some momentum and really just want to get the job done – which may well be far more preferable than going back to dreading and putting off the work yet again.

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    3. Limit yourself.

    This is the opposite of #2 – instead of forcing yourself to do at least a set amount of time, limit yourself to doing no more than 30 minutes, or an hour, or 4 hours, or whatever is reasonable. Set a timer and try to work, but when the timer goes off, stop. Even if you haven’t made a lick of progress. Oh, you’ll be stressed. You’ll want to sit there and stew for 30 more minutes. You’ll metaphorically rend your garments and gnash your teeth. But DO NOT DO ANY MORE WORK on that project. Force yourself to wait until tomorrow (or whenever you can schedule another block of time).

    The mind thrives on limits, though it might take some training. If you know you only have x amount of time to work on something, and if the alternative is even more frustration, the mind will adapt. By depriving yourself of time to work on your project, you’re turning it from a chore that you have to spend so much time on to something you only get to spend so much time on – you turn a punishment into a reward.

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    4. Skip the hard stuff.

    A lot of projects stop dead when we hit a point where we don’t know how to move forward. One way to get past that is to just set that sticky bit aside and proceed as if you’d figured it out. For instance, while writing a business plan, you may get hung up on income projections, with no idea how to figure that part out. Leave that bit, for now, and continue with the next part. If you need figures to work with, make them up* – you’ll replace them with more accurate figures later. I do this all the time when writing academic papers where I don’t have a reference on hand to flesh out some part; I just skip it, and if I need to refer to that part later in the paper, I put in nonsense and highlight it with the word processor’s “highlight” function so I remember where I need to make changes later. Often, the hard stuff is easier once you’ve finished the easier bits – you develop the expertise to handle parts that earlier were beyond your abilities.

    * You’d be surprised how many financial projections in business plans were made up anyway…

    5. Tend to your knitting.

    Or fly a kite. Or build a birdhouse. Draw caricatures of minor celebrities. Just drop whatever you’re working on and do something totally random, totally different, and totally non-stressful. The brain is a funny thing – it often freezes up under pressure and then, when you’re least expecting it, starts churning out solutions to whatever thorny problems are holding things up. Ironically, letting go of the problem is sometimes the only way to solve it.

    Do you have any tips for getting back into the flow of things? Let us know about them in the comments.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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